People are affected in various ways by the Narnia stories. Some people see them as a heart-warming chronicle of the fight of good against evil.
Other people see them simply as a big adventure story.
Lots of people, I have no doubt, see it in the same way that C. S. Lewis himself imagined it, that is, as a Christian allegory of suffering, redemption and triumph.
But my father saw the Narnia saga as something quite different. He saw it as a terrible warning against the things that might happen to you in the back of a wardrobe.
‘I’ve never felt quite the same about wardrobes since reading The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe
,’ he admitted to us once when he had just asked one of us to get some tennis shoes from the back of the wardrobe because he would rather not do it himself. ‘It was such a terrible shock. One moment you have these not unpleasant children playing around in a strange room, the next moment they are exploring the back of the wardrobe and – bingo! – they find themselves in this dreary world of snow and mock-Christian charade, to which they are condemned for ever to return.’
‘I’ve always quite liked the sound of the place,’ said Ralph. ‘It may be only mock-Christian, but it’s actually more exciting than the Bible.’
‘No, I have always hated the sound of Narnia,’ said Father stoutly. ‘It’s always winter there and there’s no Christmas. Civilisation is always about to be overturned, and the children always have to become kings and queens to save everything and then wait for a lion to save them, and they always have to go through the back of a wardrobe to get there. It’s like a mixture of Norse mythology, the Just So
stories and the Habitat catalogue. Horrible.’
Well, if you have a phobia and can’t get rid of it, you try to come to terms with it, and Father’s method of coming to terms with the backs of wardrobes was to limit himself to only taking things out of the front or, if he thought something was at the back, sending someone else in to get it for him.
Mother would always do it for him if she was there, but one day when she was away and he suddenly wanted an old umbrella he seemed to remember having seen in the back of the wardrobe, he sent me in to get it.
‘I’ll send you in because you’re smaller than Ralph. I’ll rope you up, of course,’ he said.
‘Rope me up?’
‘Like a mountaineer. I’ll tie a rope around your middle and if you get into trouble I’ll pull you back.’
I looked at Ralph. He looked at me. It is never too early to start learning to humour older people. Maybe that’s what that Commandment about parents should really say. Not ‘Honour thy father and mother,’ but ‘Humour thy father and mother …’
So I let him tie some twine round my waist.
‘OK,’ I said. ‘I’ll let you know if I’m in trouble.’
‘We’ll arrange a series of signals,’ said my father. ‘Pull once for a signal that you’ve found the umbrella, pull twice to ask to be brought back and pull three times for danger.’
‘Hold on a moment!’ said Ralph. ‘Hold on a moment!’
I thought for a moment that Ralph was going to beg Father not to send me into the wardrobe.
I should have known better.
‘Wouldn’t it make sense to pull once
for danger?’ said Ralph. ‘If he’s in danger, he won’t have time to pull three times. I mean, if he’s being dragged into a frozen world beyond, where rival princes are battling for the rule of their own kingdom against disaffected serfs, or serpents have taken over the normal government and think he looks very tasty, he might only have time to pull once before vanishing, and there we would be, thinking he’d just found the umbrella, whereas in fact he’d been …’
Ralph obviously couldn’t think of another way of describing my dreadful end.
‘That’s a good point,’ said my father. ‘So what shall we do?’
‘I’ve got an idea,’ I said. ‘I’m only going to be three feet away, behind all these hanging clothes. Why don’t I just talk to you?’
‘Brilliant!’ said my father.
‘Let’s arrange some signals,’ said Ralph. ‘If you need help, yell “Help!” If you find more than one umbrella, say “What colour was it?” And if you are dragged away by two men-at-arms who suddenly come through the back of the wardrobe, don’t forget to say goodbye.’
‘Just get in there and get the umbrella and come out again,’ said my father.
So I did go in there and I did for a little while vanish from sight behind the clothes and it was so dark in there that for just a moment I felt scared, but this was quickly replaced by a strong temptation to untie the rope from around my waist and then give a scream and see what Father’s reaction was when he pulled quickly at the twine and found nothing at the other end, but I am sorry to say that sense and decency prevailed and I found the umbrella and meekly came out with it.
‘See anything?’ said Ralph.
‘ No,’ I said.
‘No doors opening? No bleak wintry vistas? Nobody asking you to look after their kingdom for five minutes?’
‘You may laugh,’ said my father, ‘but we all have our funny little ways. One day I shall find out what your funny little way is and I shall be sure to make endless fun of you.’
All credit to my father, he did gradually conquer his fear of the backs of wardrobes, though this only extended to the ones he knew well, i.e. the ones in our house. When we stayed with other people or in hotels, I was usually sent for to ferret around in the back of the strange wardrobe, though I only ever once found something out of the ordinary.
This was in a large old-fashioned hotel we spent the night in on the way to Scotland, though which city it was in I have no idea. My parents were in one room, Ralph and I in another (we were still young enough to share, or poor enough to have to share) and before I was even allowed to see our room, I had to go and check the wardrobe in the parental room.
‘Do you actually want something out of the back?’ I said, ‘or is this just to check that it’s all right?’
‘Just a check,’ said my father. ‘Just to make sure. You know.’
It was a huge old-fashioned wardrobe, already quite full of pillows and blankets and things, and the back of the wardrobe was so far from the front I couldn’t quite see it. While trying to reach it, I stumbled over a pillow and sort of fell against the back of the wardrobe, except that it wasn’t the back. It was the wall. The wardrobe seemed to have been built without a back. I felt along the wall and, rather to my amazement, felt a handle in my hand. A door handle.
For a moment the hairs went up on the back of my neck, but then I saw a logical explanation and the hairs all went down again obediently. It was a door. It was the connecting door to the next room, hidden by the wardrobe, which had purposely been placed against it to conceal it. I tried the handle. It worked. The door opened slightly. I peered through the crack. It was another room. There was a person sitting there, looking at me.
‘Hello,’ said Ralph.
It was our room, next door. I stepped into it, and quietly closed the door behind me.
‘Well, well, well, well,’ I said. ‘Narnia isn’t quite what I expected. In fact, it’s very like the world I’ve just come from.’
‘Would that be the world of wardrobes?’ he inquired.
‘It certainly would,’ I said. ‘A place where cruel fathers send you into dark places to look for they know not what.’
‘Talking of fathers,’ said Ralph, ‘if you’ve just come through the back of his wardrobe, he’ll be coming after you very soon.’
As he said this, we could clearly hear him shout my name. He sounded very worried. He would indeed be coming through any moment.
‘Go in the bathroom,’ said Ralph. ‘Close the door behind you.’
Just as I had obeyed him, I heard my father erupt into the room.
‘Where did your brother go?’ he shouted.
‘I thought he was in your room,’ said Ralph. ‘Didn’t he go in there with you just now?’
‘He was there a moment ago, but he came out through the back of the wardrobe through the connecting door into here and …’
‘Didn’t come this way,’ said Ralph, ‘and I’ve been here all the time.’
There was an awful pause. My father breathed heavily. Did he believe, just for a moment, that I had been swallowed up into some other space/time/storyboard continuum?
‘He must have come through here,’ said my father. ‘He went into our wardrobe. He didn’t come out. I followed him in. This is the only way out.’
‘There must be another one,’ said Ralph. ‘He must have taken another exit, inside the wardrobe.’
My father went silent for a moment, then I could hear him rush back into the wardrobe. The bathroom door opened. Ralph quickly bundled me out, and put me where he had been sitting, then vanished into the bathroom. My father came out again.
‘No, there’s no …’ he started and then saw me.
‘Hello, Father,’ I said. ‘Where did you come from?’
‘Where’s Ralph?’ he said, rather wildly.
‘I’ve no idea,’ I said. ‘I’ve been here all the time.’
He roared at this and went back into his own room, via the wardrobe.
He never asked me to go into any other piece of furniture after this, nor did he ever refer to the episode again. For my own part, I think this may have been the first time I recognised that Ralph’s future really was in the theatre.
Someone Like Me 2005